The Hero Who Risked His Life to Save 32 Tourists from Burning Bus

Olav knew the smoke could be deadly to the trapped tourists, so the former firefighter sprung into action.

Marit Hommedal/Reader’s Digest International EditionOlav Hylland should already have left for an appointment. But his wife had taken the family car and although an employee had offered his, Olav couldn’t find it. I don’t really have time for this, the jovial, busy 54-year-old Norwegian thought.

It was August 11 2015, peak season for the family’s Viking-style, fjord-side hotel-restaurant at Gudvangen, Western Norway. Olav was expecting up to 500 guests, mostly Asian tourists, to eat there before boarding a ferry. He was about to cancel the appointment when he remembered the van they’d just bought, a big Mercedes Sprinter. No-one was using it and Olav jumped in.

Leaving the hotel, he turned onto the main road with the Gudvanga tunnel 300 meters ahead. The 11.4 kilometer-tunnel is one of many that perforate Norway’s mountains. Two years earlier a truck caught fire inside it: 67 people were evacuated, many with serious smoke inhalation injuries. The tunnel’s closure for repairs was a disastrous blow to Olav’s business. The road to his hotel was blocked and the stream of tourists halted. Although it was difficult, they managed to keep their staff on.

The Gudvangen Fjordtell was his life’s work. His family ran the business before him and the current and unique “Old Norse” building was designed by his wife, Torill. The absence of bookings during this season resulted in their darkest hour but they had survived. Once business started to take off again Olav had little time to dwell on the accident.

This day was no different. Inside the tunnel everything seemed normal. When almost through, Olav spotted an unusual light some 50 meters ahead. Then he saw something burning.

Horrified, he stopped dead. A tour bus was on fire, at the back where the engine was, dozens of Asian-looking tourists were stumbling towards him, getting away from the flames. They’re going the wrong way, Olav thought, knowing the tunnel exit was just 500 meters ahead round a bend ahead of him. Then he realized the bus was now blazing so fiercely they couldn’t get round it.

A former volunteer firefighter, Olav first had to raise the alarm. Grabbing his cell phone, he entered the codes with adrenalin-shaking hands. “A bus is on fire! Close the gates!” He knew there could be many vehicles inside the tunnel already. He also knew that the automatic system would ventilate the smoke back towards Gudvangen to ease access for the fire brigade stationed near the exit ahead.

Thick smoke poured into the tunnel. Every second counted. There was no way the tourists could outrun the choking, blinding fumes.

Quickly, Olav started to turn the van round. On all sides desperate tourists blundered about, making the u-turn painfully slow. Finally in position, Olav jumped out and opened the sliding doors to the empty cargo space.

“Get in here!” he shouted, pointing and waving; the tourists were Chinese and he knew they usually spoke little English. At last they started to pile in. Olav ran round the van to make sure no-one was left behind. He pushed the last two tourists into the front passenger seats.

The tour bus driver was still trying to kill the flames with a fire extinguisher. It was futile.

“Leave it!” Olav shouted but the man waved him off.

There was no time to argue. The smoke could black out the tunnel any minute. As he started the van, Olav noticed the tourist next to him had a torch. Instantly he made the man shine it on the tunnel roof to check the smoke. Hot smoke will first creep along the ceiling and then, as it cools, sink to the ground to suffocate anyone there and blind any driver. As he took off, the smoke started sinking to the floor of the tunnel, closing in on the van.

Racing to outrun the smoke, Olav met new challenges. Unsuspecting drivers were coming towards him. He flashed his lights, leaned out, yelled: “Fire ahead! Turn round!”

Most of the dozen or so drivers got the point and turned, including a shuttle bus with 50 cruise ship passengers. But some ignored the warnings and continued.

Packed like sardines, the tourists bumped about for a nerve-racking stop-and-go 20 minutes before the van finally left the tunnel. Olav stopped at the nearby gas station. Inside the van the shocked passengers were silent, but when he opened the doors to Gudvangen’s heavenly, postcard-perfect scenery, out they came, dazed but little by little smiling.

Olav located their guide and made him count the group. They were all there. Olav told them to walk to his hotel and wait in the lounge as they had now missed their boat to their next destination, the village of Flåm. After briefing emergency workers, then in his capacity as the local harbourmaster, Olav arranged for a charter boat to take them to Flåm. Medics had been called out to meet them there.

That’s it, Olav thought, back in his hotel, taking a breath. But it wasn’t quite over. A few hours later he was summoned to Flåm. With the tunnel closed, a helicopter hired by a TV channel took him over the mountain. Surrounded by all 32 Chinese tourists, the embarrassed Norwegian was hugged by each in turn and greeted as their hero. All their luggage was lost in the burned-out bus, including some passports, but they were alive and unharmed. As tour guide James He concluded for the local press: “He gave us a second life.”

“I just did what anyone would do,” Olav says modestly.

Torill believes the drama shows her husband in a nutshell: always determined to help people. “The locals say it’s good he took the van that day because if he’d taken the car, he’d have pushed all 32 into it!”

Another five people were later rescued from the Gudvanga tunnel. Four, including the bus driver, suffered serious smoke inhalation. Olav Hylland was awarded a Carnegie Diploma for heroism. Fortunately this tunnel fire didn’t hurt his business as much as the earlier one. Indeed, the rescue has made him a popular attraction among Chinese tourists.

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Originally Published in Reader's Digest International Edition